Using ‘timeout’ as a last resort

Well socialised dogs have confident, relaxed attitudes, reflected in exemplary behaviour. They are also easy to train. On the other hand, dogs with behavioural issues can cause us angst, embarrassment and even become the subject of complaints, with serious consequences. They may bark at passing people or their dogs, jump on visitors, they may become over-excited or even behave aggressively when meeting new doggie friends.
In other tip sheets, we have discussed the essential use of positive reinforcement to shape the behaviour of our dogs. Positive training methods are extremely effective and require only small time-bytes, a leash and some treats. It is not difficult to understand, or to achieve great results, but it does require a dedicated commitment in time for the first few weeks. Training can be enjoyed as part of your dogs’ daily outdoor physical recreation, or performed in the confines of your home on rainy days.
Dogs with entrenched unwanted behaviours or complex behavioural problems, however, can remain impossibly excitable, or continue to jump, bark, dig or snap, despite positive reinforcement training. Sometimes a problem needs to be fixed quickly – such as when barking prompts complaints from neighbours, or when dogs jump on vulnerable people, like toddlers or the elderly. In these cases, we may need to act more decisively. This is when that extra tool in our training box – the ‘timeout’ pattern – becomes invaluable.
Just as we reinforce desirable behaviour with positive consequences by giving the dog something he wants (treats, games or affection), we can discourage undesirable behaviour with negative consequences, by taking away something the dog wants (our company).
Important: physical punishment is intolerable and must never be used in animal training. It creates fear and anxiety, so is cruel and totally unproductive. On the other hand, using ‘timeout’ as a negative consequence is harmless and very effective when implemented correctly, because it simply takes away our companionship – it does not inflict pain, fear or force.
Timeout training can be used for any undesirable/dangerous behaviour: jumping, barking, some types of aggression, digging, chewing, door-bell reactivity, boisterous play or over-excited behaviour etc.
Let’s use the unwanted behaviour of jumping-up for our timeout training example:
1. Prepare a timeout zone – a small isolated place, free of stimulation and well away from you or your routine activity. This could be the toilet, the laundry or a bare, covered crate in a back room – somewhere the dog does not usually spend time. Important: never use the dog’s familiar sleeping crate as a timeout zone, because Fido’s cosy ‘den’ must always have positive associations.
2. Clip a lead on Fido and let it drop, to drag around behind him as you go about your routine (never leave it on him when unattended).
3. When Fido jumps up persistently and our ignoring his behaviour is not working (e.g. if the vulnerability of his ‘victim’ makes it particularly inappropriate and the dangerous behaviour must be stopped quickly), instead of ignoring the behaviour, give Fido a short, sharp warning sound, such as “arhh!” delivered without emotion, in a low-pitched voice. The “arhh!” must be perfectly timed to occur the split-second Fido’s paws touch his victim (you, the toddler or granny). Note: anger and frustration must never be in play during training, so do not let yourself fall onto this state of mind. Be patient, calm and neutral.
4. If he jumps up again within 10-15 seconds, say “arhh!” again, in a slightly more aversive manner – a little gruffer (but never in anger), and add a clap of your hands to startle/distract him. This will make the consequence of jumping up again so soon slightly more negative. Important: in the anxious dog, leave out this step. His anxiety makes it unnecessary, and we must never let the timeout pattern cause stress or increase anxiety. Try to distract Fido again by giving him commands to follow, using positive reinforcement for effort and success.
5. If Fido jumps for a third time within 10-15 seconds of the second “arhh!”, say “arhh” again but this time immediately pick up the leash and calmly lead the dog to the designated timeout zone (without anger or any other negative emotion). Close the door and step away.
6. Important: in conjunction with this last step, we must link Fido’s undesirable action (jumping up) with the negative consequence of being placed into confinement, deprived of company. To achieve this, we must make a unique noise as we lead him all the way to the isolation zone (e.g. a low siren noise or “oooooooh” or “uhh-u-uhh-u-uhh”). You may feel silly doing this, but for the timeout pattern to work, Fido must connect his undesirable behaviour with being deprived of your company. Without this link he will not ‘get it’.
7. Wait quietly away from the isolation zone door for 30-60 seconds to create a brief period of isolation, then open the door and walk away without a word. The dog must never be left in isolation for more than one minute, lest he becomes anxious – timeout must never inflict this level of stress on the dog. Also, if left in isolation too long, he will start to scratch, whine or bark to be let out. If you respond to these behaviours by opening the door, they will be reinforced and repeated. If your dog is an anxious dog, only leave him there for 20 seconds, because his anxiety could make him whine sooner than most dogs, and this sign of anxiety is counter-productive. If there is any sign that even this brief period of isolation is upsetting the very anxious dog, do not persist with timeout training. You are best to go back to ignoring the behaviour.
8. If, after his release from the timeout zone, Fido immediately repeats the unwanted behaviour by jumping up again within 10-15 seconds of his release, repeat the timeout pattern from Step 5: i.e. don’t give the warning sounds, just lead him straight back into isolation using your link sound.
9. Should Fido jump up again more than 10-15 seconds after his release, start again from Step 3: i.e. give one or two warning sounds before carrying through with the isolation process.
Remember: it is imperative to link Fido’s unwanted behaviour to his isolation, so always immediately make a link sound and keep it up all the way to the isolation zone. Also, keep the timeout short. Long isolation periods are detrimental, because dogs learn from repetition. Many short timeout sessions will quickly achieve the goal of diminishing/stopping the unwanted behaviour. One or two long timeout periods will achieve nothing more than boredom, frustration or anxiety, which is likely to lead to additional undesired behaviour!
With perfect timing, repetition, consistency and persistence, and while working with a calm, firm, neutral demeanour, we can quickly help the dog understand that his dangerous behaviour, such as jumping up on vulnerable people, results in being taken away to a lonely place. This is the last thing he wants! The timeout procedure is effective for all unwanted behaviours: jumping up, barking, digging, over-excited greetings and some types of aggression (such as precious resource protection), etc. When Fido connects a negative consequence (brief isolation) with a certain behaviour, that behaviour will quickly become extinct if it delivers the harmless-but-meaningful negative consequence of briefly being deprived of your company. Timeout is particularly effective when your training incorporates the benefits of positive training: providing good consequences when Fido shows restraint.
Once Fido learns that your warning sounds of “arhh,” followed by “arhh” with a startle-clap (only in robust dogs) applied to his undesired behaviour can lead to brief confinement, he will start to correct his own behaviour whenever he hears the warning/s, so timeout becomes unnecessary. Similarly, the “arhh” with the startle-clap quickly becomes unnecessary, as Fido moderates his behaviour to avoid this sound, and its possible implications.
It is extremely important to always work primarily with positive reinforcement throughout your training, and never rely – initially or purely – on the timeout pattern. The timeout pattern is your LAST RESORT. Positive reinforcement of desirable behaviour will increase Fido’s understanding of what you are trying to communicate triple-fold. The timeout pattern can help in an emergency situation, and with particularly robust canine personalities who resist the ignoring of unwanted behaviours. Timeout helps these dogs discern which behaviours are welcome from those that are not, and is a better alternative than the dog being surrendered or euthanased for being ‘incorrigible.’
Success will be achieved much sooner and easier, if positive reinforcement of desired behaviours far exceeds Fido’s brief banishment from your company for unwanted/dangerous behaviours.

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